Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Words We Use: Unintended Consequences

This is another of my periodic musings about what I see around me. Repeated events which catch my attention and make me say, "huh?" or "wow." Or, sometimes, yes, I think or say the now popular "WTF!?"

Today this occurrence I've noticed definitely brought the stronger expletive to mind.

What I've been noticing is this: how the passive-income generating advertisements on some blog posts, newspaper articles, essays, and the like are in opposition to the intentions or goals of the writing. I've noticed this here and there, not a lot; it hasn't been a big deal to cause me to sit down and write about it.

Usually the content generated ads I've noticed are things like Rip-Off MFA University and Write Your Novel In 72 Hours and some legitimate advertisers in the spots on my blog or hanging around my Gmail or tagged onto other writers' work. There have been some other content-related ads, like Buy This Car or Better Insurance Rates if the writing mentions a car, for example. A few off the wall  ads that came out of a word or phrase in the post/essay/email subject/article.

But I've caught a few really bizarre ones recently and I started thinking more about these.

One example is the work of the writer for Live Juicy, Once and Defiant Athlete. She is writing about keeping the focus on being healthy with eating right, following the Health At Every Size philosophy, and exercising - cardio and strength training. Her writing is insightful, inspiring, researched and well done. Her work has been syndicated and her articles and essays can be found on several sites.

What I noticed is that many of her writings which I read in my blog reader program or which appear on some other website have ads. I understand that - I know about the "passive income stream" generated by readers who click on the links and ads connected to writing, that's why they are there! But what I see attached to her writing are weight loss ads: some of them severe weight loss programs, some of them exactly what she is writing against, some of them very derogatory about fat people and supporting the myths she is trying to break down. I wondered if she knew what ads were being generated on her broadcast essays.

Then today I was reading a news article about the young woman who was kidnapped and held for 21 years and has two children fathered by that man. Now there is more evidence and the wife is even further implicated. And the system, the law enforcement system, is being shown as being even more negiligent or more incomplete in their work in this case. And right there, in the middle of the article, and I mean in the middle: halfway down the page was a set of ads in a rectangular box which jutted into the article, clear into the middle so the article was squeezed into short sentences to navigate around the box. The ad which was at the first left position, placing it in the middle of the article, was for little girls' and childrens' clothing. The article was presenting how the kidnapping couple would go out and take videos of children - girls mostly from what I read - at the park and try to make it look like the wife was filming her husband. And here was this ad for a children's clothing and accessories store with a picture of a little girl and the ad had something about just what every girl and mommy needed, yada yada. In another context - in a mothers' article, or childcare magazine, or such, very cute and appropriate. In the middle of an article about pedophiles and the expoloitation of children and everything associated with this case - kind of sick, I think.

So - that is what prompted this writing.

"Passive Income" - I understand that. Use the ads that are out there anyway to benefit the writer; every penny counts - it can add up over time, and for the well-known and frequently read writers, they may get to dimes or quarters instead of pennies piling up.

"Content-Related" - Again, an understandable concept. Make the ads match the writing. Great idea and makes sense. But this is where the problem starts. Which content? Who decides? Why don't the Defiant Athlete's content generated ads lean towards bicycle company's ads (she's had some great writing about her new bicycle, including the company who made it), and places like REI and Cabella's and healthy living companies?

"Key Words" - Back to content-related. But here is where the computer/bot selected process really breaks down. In the pedophile article - "children" appeared often. Probably the ad-bot selects ads based on the frequency of the words. I don't know - I haven't looked into that, but that's one theory I've heard explained about how it works.

I do understand that there aren't enough dollars in the world to have real people look at all the posts and decide what ads fit with which piece of writing. I'm not dumb. But there are issues when electronics start deciding what is and is not appropriate.

So, for now, I will keep my "income generating" (I'm in the pennies category!) ads on the sides and bottom of my site. In this piece of writing, for example, I can imagine what might be attached to it if I sent it out to blog readers with advertisements; and I don't want that. I'll let my puny little ads sit on my website and go with the overall, bigger picture of what I'm writing about. Which is mostly writing and some outdoorsy, exercisey types of things.

I'm not criticizing - I'm just saying, as the saying goes. Careful what you write about if your writing is being scanned by bots for "appropriate" ads.

Swarm-Bots, Belgium, 2007
Photograph by Peter Essick
for National Geographic